From Dissonance to Restoration

[This is the third in a series of profiles on pivotal figures in the abortion debate. Be sure to read our previous profiles on Margaret Sanger and Larry Lader.]

Linda CouriLinda Couri wants those who attend her presentation to see the face of a Planned Parenthood counselor and understand compassion drew her to work for the organization. Couri is an LCSW, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She is bright, serious and thoughtful. Her work as a volunteer and then counselor for Planned Parenthood ultimately ended with her decision to reject abortion and leave the organization, but she believes her experience can help others understand the commitment and loyalty of millions to the pro-choice cause.

Couri describes what initially led to a position within the Planned Parenthood organization. As a college student at Drake University, she relied on their clinic for basic screenings and tests, and by her account the staff created a supportive and affirming environment. She respected them for educating young people on reproductive and sexual issues and advocating for women.

A community of shared mission

As an employee, Couri describes a workplace of dedicated colleagues and a community of shared experience and mission. She recalls her coworkers, her fellow “worker bees,” as some of the kindest people she has ever known. Like most of her peers, they were “idealistic, motivated and ready to change the world.” She worked with women willing to forgo better employment simply for the chance to be part of what they considered a vital cause.

To further explain the profile of many of the clinic employees, she offers insight into her own. Couri describes herself as possessing a “liberal” temperament. In her words, by simple definition, she prefers “compassion to standards.” Building on that profile, she recalls as a young woman being “absolutely baffled by the statement ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.'” In her worldview, intention ruled as the measure of virtue and actions taken, and in a world without objective truth, “what I willed and intended to be good, was good.” Her assessment of religious, pro-life people, although she had been raised “marginally Catholic,” was unsparing- “dull, unforgiving and anti-intellectual.”

Personal and professional

The community of shared experience Couri described at Planned Parenthood had two components, one personal and one professional. The first, the personal, was her past decision to undergo an abortion, an experience she said she shared with other women who worked for the pro-choice cause.

Couri was in graduate school and in a relationship with a new boyfriend when she discovered she was pregnant. She initially resolved to keep the baby as the responsible course, but then recalls the moment when, after a few weeks of unrelenting anxiety, she realized, “I can have an abortion.” She recounts “it was such a wave of psychological relief it verged on feeling right.” It would be anonymous and immediate. The power of a relatively simple procedure to lift the burden and end the crisis was overwhelming. It allowed her to “switch off the voice that was asking ‘what about the baby’?”

With the support of a close friend and her boyfriend she had the abortion, and by her account was “fine.” “And fine for the 11 years that followed. So fine I was a volunteer and eventually counselor at Planned Parenthood.”

A decision to leave

It was events over the course of her professional time as counselor at Planned Parenthood that affirmed her appreciation for her clinic community but ultimately led to her decision to leave. She describes three that were the most consequential, creating what she describes as the “dissonance” that increasingly become a feature of her professional life.

Couri describes the vivid memory of a 16 year-old girl, frantic with news of a positive pregnancy test, who she had been called to counsel. Couri carefully stepped through the options, ending with what she considered the best for the circumstance, abortion. As she concluded her discussion with the girl, “she surprised me as she reached out and touched my arm and asked, ‘can you please just tell me if I’m killing my baby’?” Couri was aware of her ethical and professional responsibility, she and had no doubt the procedure ended a human life, but chose to present it as “you are terminating the products of conception.” The description eased the concerns of the girl enough to proceed with the abortion. Following the exchange, Couri was disturbed and reached out to a supervisor. Together, they discussed the incident, and acknowledged abortion was a “necessary evil, a reasonable sacrifice to protect the lives and interests of women.”

Next, a long-time clinic worker of 20 years-“a really nice, lovely woman,” came to her following an abortion procedure, tearfully apologizing for her reaction while confessing her distress at “‘seeing a little hand’ in the collection of tissue.” They consoled each other but affirmed their commitment, “resolving that what they did was right and good.”

‘What have I done?’

Finally, one day she noticed an unread stack of journals left in the recovery room for women to record their abortion experience. No one had collected them so she gathered them up thinking they could potentially be a resource for future doctoral research. Although women reported relief at undergoing the procedure, Couri was completely unprepared ‘‘for the crazy, scrawling writing, the ‘oh my god what have I done?’ of many others.” She went to the manager and they discussed the problem at length, the manager even suggesting there could be funding for post-abortive care, but Couri found the likelihood of making those contacts next to impossible.

Reconnecting with her faith

In the years since her time at Planned Parenthood Linda Couri has reconnected with her religious faith and found the courage to face down the unyielding dissonance she experienced in her personal life as a result of her abortion. Her description of moving from pro-choice to pro-life is as thoughtful as her description of her time as a dedicated employee of Planned Parenthood, and just as insightful. She describes many challenges, from admitting the pain of her abortion to overcoming the challenge of finding new friends and associates as she faced the rejection of those she once admired. As an academic and accomplished professional, gaining the humility to accept that what she previously believed and counseled was wrong, and an assault on those she hoped to serve, was a great personal challenge. She credits her participation in the Project Rachel program for eventually finding the peace and restoration she sought.

Couri closes her presentation by returning, for emphasis, to what she knows and has lived-that “pro-choice is an identity, an ideology” as well as culture and community of shared experience. And the movement “is made up of millions . . . like myself, who have made the choice for abortion” or participate in facilitating it, all deeply invested in the cause as a consequence.

Linda Couri asks us again to remember it was compassion that initially drew her to Planned Parenthood. It is her hope that as compassion is a virtue common to both sides of the debate, it may be a starting point for discussions that can gain ground with our pro-choice sisters and brothers.

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